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Drew Tabke Reflects on Cold Toes, Sharky Waters and the Anticlimactic End to the FWT Season
Posted on May 9, 2016

The hike to the top on the Bec des Rosses. P: Tero Repo

All year we’ve been tracking Drew Tabke’s run on the Freeride World Tour. The two-time world champ overcame adversity, taxing travel and mountain weather to earn a spot in the Finals in Verbier with his third place finish in Haines, Alaska. But, unfortunately and anticlimactically, the men’s ski segment of the finals were called off due to weather with little fanfare. It was an odd end to his season on tour—especially after the live feed went black during the Haines event as well—but Tabke sent us his thoughts on what actually happened in Verbier and how it all went down. —LYA Editor

Pro level lines at Xtreme Verbier. P: Tero Repo

Words by Drew Tabke, Images courtesy of Freeride World Tour/Tero Repo and Dom Daher

The last stop of the Freeride World Tour goes down every year in Verbier, Switzerland, on the Bec des Rosses, a peak steeped in freeride history. This year, for the first time in its 21-year history, the event wasn’t completed. While both women’s disciplines and men’s snowboarding ran successfully, men’s ski was called off due to deteriorating weather conditions during the day. And although there was a week remaining in the event’s weather window, the event was cancelled completely. Even close followers of the sport have been left scratching their heads this week, wondering “What happened?”

It was a cloudy and windy Saturday in Verbier, the first day of the event’s eight-day weather window. After the first three categories—women’s ski and snowboard, and men’s snowboard—had finished, I and the other riders from the men’s ski division stood on top of the “Bec” in building wind and in-and-out windows of decent light. As we waited on standby, there were huddled discussions between riders and guides, over cell phones and radios. Some people thought conditions were good enough to continue. Others thought the flat light made the face unsafe to ride. I and a few others suggested we should ride as soon as possible, good light or not, as the damage the fierce wind was doing to the face would likely cause snow conditions to deteriorate drastically by the next day, and the next good weather window didn’t look like it would come for days.

So we held. And held and held…for about three hours. Thousands of people were gathered on the opposing mountain watching and waiting for us to resume competition, as well as 100,000+ people tuned in to the live feed. The world title was to be decided, with young Canadian rider Logan Pehota and the former world champ from France, Loïc Collomb-Patton, both in the running for the title, depending on this final day’s outcome.

“The wicked southeast wind, referred to in this region of the Alps as the foehn, ripped across the ridge with impressive force, much greater than what we were experiencing on the summit. It was so strong that there were moments it was necessary to get down on all fours to avoid being blown off.”

 

Eventually the call came through that we were done—for the day, at least. We gathered our stuff and began to ski down the knife-edge ridge we had hiked up that morning. The wicked southeast wind, referred to in this region of the Alps as the foehn, ripped across the ridge with impressive force, much greater than what we were experiencing on the summit. It was so strong that there were moments it was necessary to get down on all fours to avoid being blown off. Finally we reached the finish area. New world champions had been crowned in the other three divisions and celebrations were underway. This would continue into the night and beyond in the biggest party of the year. But just then the call came down on the radio, “Men’s ski confirmed for tomorrow, 9:30 a.m. start.” Our own celebration would have to wait, it seemed.

The next morning started with a promising sky of predawn stars. We took the lifts up at 6:30 a.m. to see what the snow on the mountain looked like after the wind ravaged it overnight. Under the lovely early-morning light, with a sliver of blue sky above the peak, it looked like we were going to be able to pull it off. The snow was obviously beat up, but at this point most of the riders had adjusted their line choices according to the deteriorated snow conditions and were ready to ski. We headed up the final tram and began hiking as the clouds slowly but surely pushed back over the mountain, obscuring the sun just as the day before. Though the wind wasn’t as fierce as on Saturday, it was still present and still strong. As we reached the summit of the peak after more than an hour of hiking, we were told we were on hold again.

“Twenty more minutes: we think there is a good window coming.” This call came in over and over. I kept my family updated as they watched the live feed from their home computers in Utah and Washington in the middle of the night. Hours passed in this fashion. The light came and went between passing clouds, but the skies to the south were dark, with no obvious break on the way. Wind continued to rip across the mountain, deteriorating the conditions further. The riders stretched and bounced around, stomping feet and swinging their arms trying to stay warm, and ready to drop into a very serious run. And then at around noon, the event was called off for the day. Furthermore, despite having another seven days of the official waiting period, due to a dismal-looking weather forecast for the coming days and the unique logistical and financial scenario of the two failed days of competition, another call came through a few minutes later that the event was over completely. Cancelled. The world title decided without a final event. We stood around—shocked. Built-up adrenaline of the preparation for battle was jammed in our veins with no possible outlet.

“The main criticism other skiers level at the sport is that these events are sometimes held in subpar conditions, thus forcing skiers to ski aggressively in situations that they otherwise wouldn’t. Over the years, I’ve tried to be a good advocate for the sport by skiing in a way that shows the contrary point of view.”

 

I had skied the Bec des Rosses five times previously, four of which were in competition. Some riders, like Reine Barkered (SWE) and Aurélien Ducroz (FRA), claim that the Bec is their favorite venue on the tour. On the other hand, I personally have a really hard time getting motivated to ride the mountain. It is very high and exposed to wind and weather, meaning the snow is rarely in “powder” condition, but rather is typically old, wind-affected, and variable snow. The snow and jagged, shattered rock on the face make for very “sharky” skiing, takeoffs, and landings. Taking a big air on the face is more like gapping across fields of uncovered rock, whereas faces with more robust snow conditions allow for cleaner and more trustworthy skiing and jumping. Just as notable is the exposure one must confront when riding the face. The entire mountain is a virtual no-fall zone, meaning taking a tumble anywhere before the absolute bottom could result in a long ragdoll over exposed rock. Skiing this type of face admittedly appeals to me, but I would rather do it as a mountaineer, with an approach of cautious, one-turn-at-a-time skiing—not as a competitor trying to hit big airs and ski fast in a game of high-stakes brinksmanship.

With the event cancelled entirely, we could now just descend straight down the competition face, instead of going around the edge as we had done the day before, and check out the details of the massive face at a relaxed pace. While I expected the snow to be badly degraded by the wind, I was nonetheless surprised by how horrible the skiing was. Up high, rotten sugar snow made it impossible to tell which turn would be all snow, and which would be a few inches on rock slabs. As I got lower to where I had planned to begin hitting a few small airs, the sastrugi-textured snow, which looked like it might be consistently soft, turned out to be a jerky mix of hard and soft patches, with rocks in the mix there as well. In the middle of the main snowfields between the rock bands was the smoothest snow, as these are the areas swept clean by the wind: hard but occasionally breakable crust. There was a yellowish tinge across all of the snow. It was desert dust, carried hundreds of miles from lands far to the south as the wind had chugged along all week. It was unbelievable to me that, just a few minutes ago, actually competing on this face was an option. The reality was that it was some of the worst snow I had skied in years.

“Maybe someday with the perfect combination of circumstances—if I’m still competing, if the snow is just right, if the light is good, if I draw a good bib number, if my body and mind are primed, if I’m on the right equipment—I’ll have a shot at conquering, or at least matching, the Bec.”

 

So what is there to learn from this experience? The main criticism other skiers level at the sport is that these events are sometimes held in subpar conditions, thus forcing skiers to ski aggressively in situations that they otherwise wouldn’t. Over the years, I’ve tried to be a good advocate for the sport by skiing in a way that shows the contrary point of view. With a little patience and savvy decision-making and line choice, in these competitions it’s totally possible to ride good snow and fun terrain and still post good results. But when it comes to the Xtreme Verbier and the Bec des Rosses, my outlook is often incongruous with the terrain and snow. . But compare what happened in Verbier this year to our previous event in Haines, Alaska: what a contrast! Haines was everything I hope this sport can be! Enough clean lines for every single rider to make fresh tracks from top to bottom if they so chose, and a massive snowpack. It was as close to perfection as you can get in this unique pursuit.

Xtreme Verbier bib draw. P: Dom Daher

While their style of skiing is much different than my own, I do have deep respect for riders like Barkered and Ducroz, for whom the Bec des Rosses is the ultimate freeride venue. Their refined technical skiing and ability to be 100% mentally committed to lines, where an error means possibly tumbling through hundreds of feet of rocks, make them remarkable athletes and human beings. And with all of the lore and history and energy around the Bec des Rosses, I can’t deny the pull the mountain exerts on me. The best result I’ve ever posted there is 5th, and even then, I hadn’t arrived at the bottom feeling like I stepped up to the level of performance the mountain demands from a champion. Maybe someday with the perfect combination of circumstances—if I’m still competing, if the snow is just right, if the light is good, if I draw a good bib number, if my body and mind are primed, if I’m on the right equipment—I’ll have a shot at conquering, or at least matching, the Bec. And if not, well, that’s fine too. To add to what John Muir said about “the mountains are calling and I must go,” sometimes you have to take a message and get back to them later.

Editor’s Note: After Drew Tabke completed his recap of the season, the Freeride World Tour community lost a member of its family, snowboard world champion Estelle Balet, in a tragic avalanche accident in Switzerland. Our hearts go to all those impacted by this tragedy.

 

Author: - Monday, May 9th, 2016
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